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EU airport chaos is not punishment for Brexit

by Luke Lythgoe | 03.08.2017

The British press love a “holiday chaos” story, and they’ve landed a good one this summer. Front pages have been splashed with images of miserable British tourists stuck in queues of up to four hours at popular airports across Europe.

The cause appears to be stringent new security checks, introduced in the wake of recent terror attacks, on travellers entering and leaving the EU’s borderless Schengen Area. Several airports have not hired enough staff to process August holidaymakers.

Normally this would have been enough to run a front-page scorcher about incompetence and meddling eurocrats. But we live in the age of Brexit now, and instead headlines about Britons being “punished” for voting to leave the EU are cropping up across the eurosceptic press.

Outspoken Brexiters are fanning the flames. Andrew Bridgen, a pro-Brexit Tory MP always happy to lend a quote to pro-Brexit papers, told the Mail Online: “UK travellers will have a sneaky suspicion that this is some kind of EU punishment. They are going to be thinking, what has changed? The only thing is that we are leaving the EU.”

The Telegraph quoted an anonymous government minister, who wondered whether this was “a warning” from Brussels of post-Brexit misery to come and suggested the UK “should have British only lanes”  in retaliation.

The Express ran an entire article on the subject by eurosceptic columnist Leo McKinstry, headlined: “New border rules are just EU’s bid to punish Britain”. In it, McKinstry proposed that the long queues were the result of “a politicised desire to indulge in a form of collective humiliation and denigration of the British”.

It didn’t matter that such disruption could “inflict real damage” on the tourist industries of several European countries because, in the EU, “integrationist dogma trumps everything else”, said McKinstry. The article concluded – via further dog-whistle euroscepticism about the Brexit divorce bill, migration crisis and terrorism – that the EU had the “strategy of the madhouse” and that “despite the queues, [the UK] will ultimately be better off with Brexit”.

Such Brexiters’ insistence that current airport turmoil is part of a Brussels-led conspiracy against UK citizens is ridiculous for many reasons.

Firstly, the delays have not only affected the British, but all non-Schengen members – including Irish citizens.

Then there is the farfetched idea that airports as diverse as Malaga, Palma, Amsterdam’s Schiphol, Paris Orly and Brussels could all have colluded to inflict vengeful misery on British tourists at financial and reputational expense to themselves.

Not to mention the deft organisational skill that would be required by the EU institutions to covertly orchestrate all this – something Brexiters have been loath to credit Brussels with in the past.

In fact, the European Commissioner responsible for security is Britain’s own Julian King, a point conveniently overlooked by Brexiters peddling the conspiracy story. King said it “made sense” to check travellers but appeared to blame the chaos on airport authorities, who had had “lots of time to prepare and put in place the necessary arrangements and staff” since the new checks were proposed in 2015.

Instead this is another example of poisonous drip-drip tactics deployed by hard Brexiters to cast Europe as the enemy, toxify the public debate, and damage any goodwill in the Brexit negotiations – thus increasing the likelihood of their favoured form of destructive Brexit.

The irony is that one surefire way of ensuring even worse travel chaos is to implement the reckless, fast-tracked Brexit many of these Brextremists crave. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has warned that British passengers could face widespread cancellation of flights if a post-Brexit aviation deal is not in place by the end of 2018. In O’Leary’s opinion the UK does not have time to reach such an agreement since it will inevitably be complicated, while Britain’s negotiators are overestimating the threat of tourism “armageddon” in Europe and ignoring the powerful interests of European airlines keen not to give the British rivals a good deal.

More time is needed then, probably in the form of a post-2019 transitional period during which the status quo is maintained. A vocal opponent of this prudent approach is one Leo McKinstry, who recently wrote at length in the Telegraph about the perils of a transitional period of “three or even four years”. Not once did he acknowledge the far greater perils of pulling out of the EU too hastily.

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This article was updated on 4 August 2017 to include the Telegraph’s quote from an anonymous government minister.

Edited by Bill Emmott